Random thoughts about watching, working and living in the arts, from HMS co-founder and executive producer Scott Silberstein. "In The Moment" offers a quick 60-second read about new ideas, events, shows and productions in the HMS world, and "Adventures In Yes" takes a deeper dive into how art and media reflect, define and inspire our world. Enjoy!

November 3, 2018

Just WRITE it.

Facing down writer's block and getting back to work.

Abigail and Sean Bengson. Exposed. I want to be more like them.

Writer’s Block sucks, and it comes in many shapes and forms. For me, there’s two.

There’s the version where, telling myself I can’t write, I don’t.

And there’s the one where I write but don’t show anyone.

When this happens, what I thinkI’m doing is wrestling with questions like, “Who’s going to read this? Who’s ever going to perform it? What difference will it make and who will care?”

That gives me a certain cover, as if I’m actively engaged in debate with an oppositional other, and as if these are arguments I can win and questions I can answer, after which the writing will flow.

That’s a bad place for someone attempting any kind of creative act. It stops us from making work, which is bad enough, but it also adds unnecessary conflict and drama to an already stressful situation. We create for ourselves an “oppositional other” where one doesn’t need to exist. It’s a place where artists can make themselves look and feel pretentious.

This isn’t about whether or not others will care, of course, nor is it about what they will think. I think it’s very simply about the primal fear of being exposed and embarrassed.

When I can parse the difference, and act accordingly, I go from loathing myself to forgiving myself. And then I can write, feel and behave more interestingly, creatively and thoughtfully.

Sounds simple. For me, it’s not. When it comes to making and sharing work, I careen from having an almost unreasonably low amount fear (where work flows freely and is shared nervously but happily) to having an absolutely unreasonably high one (where whatever I might bring myself to write doesn’t see the light of day).

Over time I’ve learned that the best way to moderate that swing, and then discover ways to get back to work, is get in front of as much generously confessional work as possible.

By generously confessional, I mean that it’s as much about “look at us” as it is “look at me.”

There’s always a healthy dose of “look at me” in any work, unless it’s completely derivative. That’s necessary for it to have a point of view and some grounding in actual relatable experience.

But if it isn’t also infused with a healthy dose of “look at us” – and I mean allof us, as opposed to presuming that the “me” is by definition a stand-in for “us” – then it’s just an exercise in narcissism, which is what I’m trying to get away from in the first place.

So curating a “Look At Us” festival is tricky. But a few weeks ago, over the course of five amazing days, I saw three deeply personal, confessional “Look At Us” works that rocked my world.

It began on a Tuesday at the La Jolla Playhouse with Hundred Days, a show I would have missed were it not for Jessie Mueller's exhortations to get myself to California and see this as soon as I could (how she knew I needed to see this show I’ll never know, but I think that’s part of what makes Jessie Jessie). Hundred Days, a hybrid of a great alt-indie-rock show and The Moth, tells the story of the three weeks it took Abigail and Sean Bengson to meet, fall in love and get married. Actually, it’s not so much that it tells the story as Abbie and Sean tell it themselves, through extraordinary stories and songs and backed by a dazzling band. At first familiar and linear, and then surprisingly intimate and epic, Hundred Days, with both power and fragility, positively rocked.

Five days later, I was back home in Chicago at The Goodman, where I saw We’re Only Alive For a Short Amount of Time. Playwright, performer and songwriter David Cale, under the thoughtful direction of Bob Falls, put his life on display in a way that was at first comforting, by suggesting that this was going to be a relatively standard if also artful confessional. But then, like Hundred Days, the show whip turned into something more surprising and intimate. Where Hundred Days got romantically surreal, We're Only Alive exploded with a kind of horror I’d wish on no one. Everything Cale shares and describes is true, which made it all the more shocking; and yet it's shared in the gentlest and least punishing way possible, which made it all the more gorgeous. He and his story were generous and forgiving -- to Cale’s family, to Cale himself and to the audience.

In between those shows, I attended a book release event for Jill Soloway’s new memoir She Wants It, an evening that included vitally memorable teamwork and accompaniment from Jill’s sister Faith, their mom Elaine (who had thoughtfully managed to get me a last minute ticket), and their two guests, the intersex activist, writer and performer Pidgeon Pagonis and the sensational standup Hannah Gadsby (who’s Netflix special Nanette is itself an unforgettable example of a life put willingly and artfully on display). The event’s combination of stand-up, improv, debate, reading and personal confessional was hilarious, poignant, furious and inspiring.

Jill introduced a passage they chose to read from She Wants Itby confessing that no matter how many great things have been happening to them over these last several years (Transparent, invitations to The White House, the book and so on), a voice still rears its head when they sit down to write, a voice that screams that familiar refrain that had been deafening me of late:

“Who cares? Who do you think you are?”

I was and remain deeply grateful to Jill for sharing that. In a room where one might assume I might feel isolated – I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think there were all that many cis-gendered straight white guys in the house – thanks to everyone on that stage and to Jill in particular, I felt that I was not alone. That as long as I was with people who talked and thought like Jill, then I must be with my people. That if Jill Freaking Soloway can wrestle her fears of exposure in this moment of celebration and vulnerability, then maybe I can get off my privileged ass and get to work.

My instinct at this moment is to make clear to anyone reading this that I don’t put myself in Jill’s league, or David’s, or Abigail & Sean’s. I’m sure that’s true, but I think the whole point here is less about what league we’re in and more about getting off the bench and playing. And that because there are no guarantees of how the work will be received, we might as well surround ourselves with as many smart people as possible who know how to support and disagree with us and enjoy the game.

Perhaps the biggest point of all, one I like to think each of these artists would make, is that all of us have an epic story within us, a story asking to be told in some way. Maybe it’s on a stage or a screen, maybe not; doesn’t matter. There are a lot of ways to share our stories, and you start by finding someone to tell them to. Even if it’s just yourself.

A few years ago my dear pal Kristen Brogden and I were strolling through the Art Institute. As we walked into the modern wing, I joked, “Welcome to the ‘I Coulda Done That’ section of the museum.” (How many times have we heard that about any kind of modern art – “A plain white canvass with a red dot? I coulda done that.”)

“Yeah, they coulda,” Kristen replied. “But they didn’t.”

Time to get back to work.

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